Kristi Straus’ Environment 239 class dives deep into many aspects of sustainability.
UW Environment
Kristi Straus talking sustainability with her class.

Remember to bring a reusable bag when you go grocery shopping. Bring a reusable mug when you go to a coffee shop. Shop your closet or thrift your clothes whenever you can. For many people, sustainable actions like these have become second nature. With new COVID-19 regulations limiting the use of reusable or “pre-loved” products, many of us are left wondering how we can still practice sustainable behavior in our daily lives. It turns out many people are actually living more sustainably than ever before, and have an opportunity to extend the positive actions we’re already taking, whether they’re being implemented by design or by executive order. 

Program on the Environment Lecturer Kristi Straus gave us the lowdown on all things sustainability, and tips on how to extend good habits beyond this lockdown period.

First, the good news. If you’re worried about the impact of the disposable grocery bags, coffee cups and takeout containers that have come back into our lives, be assured that these make up a very small component of our ecological footprint when you look at the big picture. So, while many of us are using more single-use items, we are also driving and (more importantly) flying much less. The emissions caused by road and air travel account for a far greater portion of our personal ecological footprint, and in pandemic times, we’re seeing these emissions go right down. “This reframing in the way we think about sustainability is extremely valuable for motivating individual behavior change,” says Straus.

And here’s some more good news: health benefits are also an important component of sustainable living, and many of us are getting these in spades while we safely practice social distancing. As people spend more time at home, they are preparing more home-cooked meals, walking and biking more frequently, and spending less time driving. “These alternative travel methods can reveal just how connected our neighborhoods are and show us how easy it can be to leave the car at home and walk or bike to our destination instead,” says Straus.

Another challenge you can set for yourself during this quiet time is to wean yourself off of “retail therapy.” Many people derive immediate satisfaction from buying something, but the simplicity of life right now gives us the rare opportunity to be trained out of that habit. Straus argues that we can gain more long-term happiness when we eliminate the need for immediate material gratification and have more time to think about receiving an item and enjoying it. Research suggests that our satisfaction peaks the moment before we get something, so Straus challenges her students to load up their online shopping carts before bed and wait until morning to see if they still want the items before hitting the buy button. When getting what we want is more difficult, it causes us to think harder about whether we truly want something, and we end up saving some money and Earth’s resources in the process.

If you still find yourself wanting to do more to reduce your environmental impact while the world responds to COVID-19, we’ve compiled a list of things we can all do now to cut down on our ecological footprint:

  • When calling for takeout be sure to ask if the restaurant uses styrofoam containers. Normally, Seattle restaurants must use takeout containers that are recyclable or compostable, but these standards have been relaxed due to the coronavirus. Styrofoam is neither recyclable nor compostable.
  • Cut back on beef and lamb consumption and eat more plants. Cutting out beef and lamb from a diet has a huge impact on land and water consumption. If you want to eat meat, chicken and turkey tend to be farmed using less ecologically destructive methods than beef and lamb.
  • Use cloth masks instead of disposable masks.
  • Stop wearing disposable gloves at the grocery store. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recommend their use for shopping and gloves are washed less often than hands.
  • Take this time to reflect. What do you miss about your previous life? What new, positive habits have you created during this time that you could carry forward? Think about your community and well-being — do you actually miss going to the mall and buying things? Has the pandemic resulted in you buying fewer groceries, resulting in less food waste? Are you planning your meals out more now? Are you spending more time outside? Reading? Sleeping more?

Straus leaves us with this thought: when trying to embed more sustainable actions into your daily life, think about community and economic value rather than just environmental value. While eating out may not be as sustainable as cooking your own meal at home, she notes that we should still be supporting and connecting with our local communities whenever we can.

With these points in mind, you may be able to alleviate some guilt surrounding sustainability and help build habits that lower your ecological footprint in the long run.